Whether or not history will determine that we are living in an ever more divided culture, it certainly feels that way. Perhaps there is just more to argue about when facing a never-ending Ninja Warrior course of crises. The culture wars, meanwhile, strip words of their meaning and debates of their nuance, further pitting communities, generations, families and friends against each other.
Among the many casualties of this 21st-century slanging match is – arguably – the art of debate itself. So how do you win an argument in such fractious times without fuelling division? And if arguing is indeed an art, what can we learn from its masters?
Ken Grinell, a Jamaican-Irish comedian from east London, has emerged as a fighting force on the roast battle circuit, in which comedians trade insults for laughs in front of a baying crowd and a panel of judges. Even in an environment that rewards meanness, Grinell says steamrolling tends to backfire.
“If you’re a big imposing person and you come in super-aggressive, the crowd will turn on you,” he says. “Sometimes you have to kind of let yourself get flogged a little bit before they’re comfortable seeing you return fire. You’re basically learning how strangers view you in relation to the other person on stage.”
Better to rely on wit than brawn, says Grinell, who recently uttered the following put-down in a battle against a momentarily silenced comedian called Nick: “The women in Nick’s office asked for a gender pay gap … they don’t even want to be close to him financially.”
Tulip Siddiq, the Labour MP and shadow economic secretary, says that while social media has made it easier to “dress up abuse as political discourse”, parliament is no less combative than when she cut her teeth as a researcher in the late Blair years. “There was as much performative politics in the chamber then as there is now,” she says.
In 2015, while fighting to be elected in Hampstead and Kilburn, which was then the UK’s second most marginal seat, Siddiq had a crash course in how to argue her case for representation. One big lesson that she says can relate to everyday life is that a fusillade of facts isn’t always effective, however keen you might be to show your learning.
“I remember in one hustings quoting an LSE statistical study about economics and it wasn’t right for a big diverse audience,” Siddiq says. “Detail just didn’t work. I had to grind whatever point I was making down to simple language that was emotional and relatable while also not sounding robotic.”
That’s not to say you can get away with skimping on research, or that you can’t reference it when appropriate. “You have to know the facts and the law back to front,” says David Emanuel KC, a criminal defence and appeals lawyer at Garden Court Chambers.
Yet Emanuel says total command is neither possible nor always advantageous. “You have to be trustworthy and part of that is making concessions,” he says via Zoom from the Old Bailey, during a break in a murder trial. When not arguing in front of a jury, he is often making a case to senior judges at the Court of Appeal, armed with points of varying strength.“If you have weaker points or arguments, conceding they are weaker without throwing them away can make your stronger points more credible. It can also be disarming, and throw people off guard.” He adds: “Stubbornly seeming not to concede any ground at all can damage your overall position.”
Humility and empathy can be particularly scarce commodities in the wreckage of a marriage. But Kate Daly, a divorced relationship counsellor and co-founder of Amicable, a non-confrontational legal service for separating couples, says employing such traits in arguments about thorny subjects such as money or custody means everyone does better.
“Listening to each other’s ideas about what a good outcome should be, even if they’re not necessarily the ideas you run with, is really important, because that then gives the feeling to both people that they’ve been heard,” she says. “And you’ve got to be able to listen actively, to demonstrate that you’re paying attention to the other person’s viewpoint. That will help to create respect, which is absolutely essential if you’re going to win an argument.” Daly says it pays to be curious about someone’s dilemma or motivations, and use phrases such as: “So help me understand”; “Tell me a bit more about what you said because I wasn’t quite clear”; “What would that mean to you, if I could do that for you?”
The stakes in an argument are rarely higher than in a hostage negotiation. Yet even here it’s smart to deploy what Suzanne Williams calls “tactical empathy”. Williamsworked as a senior negotiator in the Metropolitan police for 32 years before going on to advise the government in war zones and in maritime piracy cases. “There’s a huge difference between hearing and listening,” says Williams, an associate professor at Oxford University’s programme on negotiation. “You have to understand the person you’re negotiating with without judgment, whatever your personal values might be.”
First, Williams has to “earn the right to negotiate” when, for example, she deals with intermediaries who represent Somali pirates on board ships taken in the Gulf of Aden (there was a spate of such hijackings early this century). “You have to peel back the layers, find out what their true motivation is, look for the hooks, or for what makes them smile, what frightens them, and you have to try to understand them.”
Williams is reluctant to share all the secrets of such a sensitive trade, but says achieving a useful rapport requires calm, active listening and an emotional capacity for absorbing abuse and – occasionally – threats of violence. When she’s ready to negotiate, she says she can almost feel a switch going somewhere. Empathy becomes only more vital.
“Too many people try to win arguments from their own perspective,” she says. “And that really is a big mistake, because their worldview isn’t necessarily your worldview, which is made up of your age, gender, life experiences, education … So clarifying how they see the situationand perception shows you’re listening to them, and taking their ideas on board, which is really important.”In all arenas for professional argument, anger and aggression are the weapons of losers. In a hostage negotiation, body language such as twitchiness or faster breathing can be the first sign that things risk getting out of control. “You have to really make sure that you bring it down with your voice,” Williams says. “If you try to match somebody’s pitch or the volume of their argument, well, that’s exactly what not to do. You shouldn’t be condescending or patronising but you should try to be the grownup in the room.”
In a divorce scenario, Daly says, “You can’t just shout somebody down, because a court is ultimately going to sign off what is acceptable and what isn’t acceptable. So you are genuinely in the space of having to persuade somebody, and sometimes it’s us, the coaches, who have to show people what a reasonable range of outcomes might look like.” Siddiq says being aggressive in political arguments is almost always a turn-off. “You just come across as someone who has nothing to say or ideas of your own,” she says. “But it’s a balancing act and when someone in the party opposite says something completely ludicrous you’re within your rights to be angry and put them in their place.”
Tin Puljić, a debating coach and international relations PhD student at the University of Zagreb, adds: “Nobody is ever going to say something that is 100% idiotic … Every argument has some level of logic and if you want to win a debate you must engage with the best version of the argument. Being charitable makes it easier to win because you can say things like, ‘Even if I grant that you proved A, B or C within this argument, here is why you’re still wrong.’”
Puljić, who in 2021 beat everyone – including those whose first language was English – at the World Universities Debating Championships, now teaches the next generation of debaters the “Sexi” technique: Statement, Explanation, eXample, Importance – a strategic order around which to build an argument.
“Importance is vital because we should not assume anything is inherently important,” he says. “So you cannot end your argument : ‘And this will increase democracy within the country.’ Why do I care about democracy within that country? What is the context?”
University debating competitions require combatants to make the best possible case regardless of their actual beliefs. Defence barristers, meanwhile, must put their clients’ right to a fair trial above all else. But, says Emanuel, “I find it impossible to argue effectively until I’ve got to a place where I believe the argument.” He says history is littered with miscarriages of justice in which defence lawyers perhaps privately presumed their clients were guilty. So even if everything points to a guilty verdict, Emanuel challenges himself to find a way to construct an argument he can believe in, however difficult. To do his job as well as he can, he adds, “I have to accept what my clients tell me as truthful.”
Arguing with conviction, as well as humility and empathy, is a fine balance to strike. And while the techniques of expert arguers can often transfer to everyday life, there are limits. A parliamentary debating style does not always go down well in Siddiq’s marriage, for example. Puljić finds himself holding back a little when, say, debating some political point with a family member.
“‘Stop cross-examining me!’ is a common refrain in my house,” says Emanuel, who has teenage children. “And I don’t mind you quoting me on that – they’ll laugh if they see it in print.”
How to argue: five golden rules
Don’t assault people with facts
It’s important to know your stuff but reeling off too many stats can leave people cold. Ideas and emotions are more compelling. Say “so many people are feeling x”, rather than “A recent study by scientists at …”
When they go low …
If heightened emotion causes one side to raise their voice or become angry, keep yours calm and soft, without being patronising. Nobody wins in a slanging match.
The structure adopted by university debating teams: make a statement, offer an explanation, then an example. And then detail the importance of what you’re arguing. For example: “We should spend less time looking at our phones (statement), because it’s eroding our mental health and ability to connect with people in real life (explanation). Excessive smartphone use has been proven to increase anxiety (example) and this matters because poor mental health among adults can have an impact on everything from workplace productivity to interpersonal relationships (importance).”
Be curious …
About the other side’s life experience and motivations. Say things like: “So help me understand” and “Tell me more about that: I wasn’t quite clear”.
Conceding your argument contains weaker points makes your stronger ones more credible, while also making you seem more charitable and human.